Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

This is part of a series

July 2015

The Psychology of Freedom: An Introduction

Presley begins a series of posts describing a “psychology of freedom” and explaining its relevance to libertarianism more broadly.

Libertarians have sometimes disdained psychology. Murray Rothbard is the most obvious example.1 But others have also poo-pooed psychology because they imagine that psychological research is based on arbitrary and unsound ideas and unreliable research.  But that hasn’t been true since the 1960s, if ever. In the 1960s, both the theories of psychoanalysis (Freud) and behaviorism (Skinner) lost favor because they couldn’t stand up to actual research evidence about individual behavior. Psychology became research-oriented rather than theory-oriented and research methods came under great scrutiny. Since that time, psychology has become rigorously scientific in its methodology and its peer-reviewed academic journals demanding.2 Studies have been replicated; old ideas that don’t stand up to current research discarded, and new ideas tested.

Another misplaced idea about psychology is that it’s mostly clinical. In fact, the majority of psychologists are research-based—in areas such as social, developmental, personality, perception, physiological, and cognitive psychology. Many do research as professors at colleges and universities while others may work in business and industry as industrial-organizational or human-factors psychologists.

In truth, psychological research has a great deal to offer libertarianism. Its research is rich in insights that help us understand what the problems and issues of a free society are. It tells us about free will and what supports that concept. It suggests what helps create psychologically healthy and autonomous individuals and why the need for individuals to be free is important. It warns us about what problems freedom faces and yet encourages us to understand that human nature is not, in fact, evil. I will argue that there is a psychology of freedom and, in this series, I will describe it and its relevance to libertarianism.

First of all, two concepts critical to a free society are supported by psychological research: individualism and free will. Both speak to the idea of personal responsibility, which is at heart of what a free society needs to function.  I have previously written about the psychology of individualism and what research supports it. While the concept of free will is controversial within the scientific community, a great deal of psychology research supports the idea. Some libertarians have caught on to this. In reviewing the book Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, Ronald Bailey at Reason writes, “What Gazzaniga really fears are the potentially baleful effects of neuroscientific findings on our notions of personal responsibility. In general, the concept of free will is closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. If neuroscience shows that we are in thrall to our neurons, then how can we be held responsible for our actions, both condemnable and praiseworthy?”  But fortunately, Gazzaniga is not alone among psychologists in writing about the research support for free will. Others include prominent social psychologist Roy Baumeister in his edited book Free Will and Consciousness: How Might They Work? In another book co-edited by Baumeister, Baer, and Kauffman, Psychology and Free Will,  Shaun Nichols, one of the contributors, writes: “Psychology is poised to breathe new life into these issues.”  Free will is alive and well in the halls of academic psychology.

Another angle on free will is the idea of self-determination. This has been explored by several psychologists, including Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Looking at critiques of autonomy by biological reductionists, cultural relativists, and behaviorists, they conclude that “there is a universal and cross-developmental value to autonomous regulation when the construct is understood in an exacting way.” At their website for this concept, Deci and Ryan write: “[Self-determination] is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways.”  Again, psychological research supports the possibility of healthy and autonomous human beings.

Another relevant area of investigation related to personal autonomy is positive psychology. While thinking about autonomy goes back a long way on psychology, the relatively new area of positive psychology adds much to our understanding of what is necessary for people to thrive psychologically. To quote the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” The older research on what is called “locus of control” tells us that people function much better when they feel in control of their lives. Feeling out of control is correlated with depression, learned helplessness, destructive behavior, and domestic violence, among other unfortunate consequences. The newer research on positive psychology tells us about how to gain control of our lives. The leading psychologist in this area, Martin Seligman, talks about the benefits of positive psychology in this TED talk.

The selling point that libertarians could and should push using the research on self-determination, autonomy, and positive psychology is that freedom is good for people. They are healthier, happier, more motivated, and more in control of their lives under conditions of freedom. People thrive when they are free. I’ll explore this more in a subsequent essay.

Another area of research critical to libertarian interests is social influence. What makes people obey authority? Why do they resist? What are the social and personal conditions that may contribute to building a freer society? A free society can’t be achieved, much less sustained, unless people are willing to question authority. Many libertarians are no doubt familiar with the classic experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study that demonstrated how the power of implicit and unquestioned social scripts can lead people to harm others. Other relevant studies include the research on the authoritarian personality (characteristic of many right-wing conservatives), dogmatism (characteristic of true believers across the political spectrum), and what psychologist Milton Rokeach called “the open and closed mind.” Social influence research also tells us about everyday conformity and the conditions promote it. In subsequent essays here, I’ll explore those studies and others that may give us some answers to the questions above.

One question relevant to social change in the direction of a freer society is why people resist such change. Why do so many prefer the status quo? A new study asks that very question: “Why do we stick up for a system or institution we live in—a government, company, or marriage—even when anyone else can see it is failing miserably? Why do we resist change even when the system is corrupt or unjust?” This research illuminates the conditions under which we’re motivated to defend the status quo— a process called “system justification.”  Such research will help us better understand how to encourage people to change, to go against the status quo, and seek more freedom.

While we’re on the subject of social change, let’s talk about political persuasion. It’s been my observation over the years that many libertarians are naïve about how people think, about what kinds of arguments are persuasive. Too many libertarians imagine that all they have to do is present a rational argument for libertarian principles. To quote a common catchphrase, “How’s that working for you?” The answer is not too well. Two books based on psychological research on decision-making illustrate why such a view is naive. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking Fast and Slow shows that most people make more decisions based on emotion than on reason. Rational arguments can include emotional appeal but that is all too rarely done by libertarians. The other book, The Political Brain by political scientist Drew Westin, makes the same point. The winners in most elections are the ones who know how to pack an emotional wallop. If libertarians don’t catch on to this, we will remain an obscure movement talking mostly to ourselves.

An area less obvious to libertarians but equally relevant is child development. As early 20th century libertarian feminist Suzanne LaFollette wrote: “What its children become, that will the community become.” Children are not born libertarians. They have to learn to value freedom. The extensive literature on child rearing tells us that children need guidance but they don’t need physical punishment. Children who are taught empathy in a firm but loving way are more likely to be mature and tolerant adults. Thus the research suggests that parents need to be actively engaged in teaching their children empathy, moral values, and critical thinking about authority.

Another area in which parents may play a vital role is intelligence. The research on intelligence is not, as some may suppose, one that dictates that IQ is solely genetic.  It actually supports the anti-determinist point of view. As Barry Scott Kaufman points out at the Scientific American blog, the inheritability of intelligence does not mean what you think. He writes:

But at the very least, these findings should make you think twice about the meaning of the “inheritability of intelligence.” Instead of an index of how “genetic” an IQ test is, it’s more likely that in Western society—where learning opportunities differ so drastically from each other—heritability is telling you how just how much the test is influenced by culture.

Another similar take on the intelligence issue comes from pediatrician Esther Entin, M.D. who discusses a recent study which found “roughly 50% of the cognitive gains children make from 10 months to age two are the result of environmental benefits. Without such benefits, the gains didn’t happen.”

A recent study supports the idea that there are multiple windows of opportunity during which what a child is exposed to in daily life can make big differences in his or her cognitive (mental) development, both at that time and in the future. More importantly, these windows of opportunity open much earlier in childhood than realized and missed opportunities have more negative impact than we might like to believe. The study found that being a toddler of low socioeconomic status can actually prevent a child from realizing his or her genetically-endowed cognitive potential.

This research doesn’t just tell us that IQ is influenced by the environment, it also tells us that poverty is a problem we can’t neglect. Educational opportunities and better childrearing are necessary for children to thrive. Two goals of those who want a freer society are to work toward a culture in which poverty can be eliminated and children provided with better opportunities to learn.

Other research shows how critical education is to a free society. Intelligence and education, not surprisingly, have a bearing on crime. Michael Shermer points out that intelligence is correlated with moral values:

Social scientists have gathered considerable evidence on the connection between various types of intelligence and moral values and behavior. Numerous studies from the 1980s onward, for example, find that intelligence and education are negatively correlated with violent crime. As intelligence and education increase, violence decreases, even when controlled for socioeconomic class, age, sex, and race.

Even more intriguing is newer evidence that shows a positive correlation between literacy and moral reasoning, most particularly between reading fiction and being able to take the perspective of others. Perspective-taking in novels requires a matrices-like rotation of relational positions combined with an understanding of what it would feel like if X happened to you, even though the “you” in this case is a character in the novel.

So encouragement of better education can increase intelligence and moral reasoning, and decrease crime, all positive results that can contribute to a freer society. 

Another important concern for a free society is how people will treat each other. Liberals imagine that without government, people will run amok and not care about the poor. But the research literature doesn’t lead to such a conclusion. A major area of research in psychology is what is called prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behaviors are those intended to help other people. Prosocial behavior is characterized by a concern about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people. Behaviors that can be described as prosocial include feeling empathy and concern for others and behaving in ways to help or benefit other people.”  The good news is that children can be taught such behavior and indeed may have a natural inclination toward it. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, “Children as young as 3 years old possess a keen sense of restorative justice and a ‘surprising’ level of concern for others, according to the results of a new study.”  This conclusion is consistent with earlier research in developmental psychology. This is good news for those who seek a freer society. Contrary to liberal fears, people have natural inclinations toward justice and helping behavior. A freer society will nourish this natural inclination.

Other areas of psychological research that are relevant to the concerns of a free society include prejudice and discrimination, psychology and the law, gender psychology, and health psychology.  A free society is not one in which some groups of people are treated badly by other groups. Bigoted people are motivated to act out against and even harm those who are the object of their bigotry. Psychological research tells us about the conditions that may increase or decrease bigotry. The research on psychology and the law illustrates that the current system of jurisprudence is biased against blacks and in favor of the death penalty, for example.  Neither bias is desirable in a free society. Gender psychology tells us that stereotypical gender roles are not built into the human psyche. People are free to choose the roles and behaviors that best suit them as individuals. Health psychology tells us about how to be healthy and happier human beings, a goal that most people aspire to. A free society will promote individual choice, health and happiness, and fairer treatment of all groups. Psychological research can illuminate the way to that society.3

In columns to come, I’ll explore some of these ideas and others in greater depth. Rothbard may have thought that psychology was irrelevant to libertarianism but I hope to show you that he couldn’t be more wrong.  It isn’t just economics that offers ideas for a free society but the other social sciences as well, particularly psychology. The preponderance of psychological research supports the idea that people thrive under conditions of freedom and autonomy. It supports that idea that we are not determined by our genes but rather, with good education and good childrearing, people can become mature and empathetic adults who value freedom. It helps us understand how to think critically about authority and how to raise our children to do the same. There really is a psychology of freedom and libertarians should embrace it.


  1. Murray Rothbard once said in an early issue of his Libertarian Forum that psychology had no value to libertarianism except for the work of Thomas Szasz and Sharon Presley (he had just read my Master’s thesis, a comparative study of libertarians and conservatives). While I was terribly flattered to be mentioned in the same breathe as Dr. Szasz, I couldn’t have disagree more with Rothbard’s conclusions. When I confronted Rothbard years later about this remark and mentioned the Milgram experiment as an example of psychology’s relevance, his response was simply to walk away from me without saying a word.
  2. Numerous critiques of research methodology have appeared in psychology journals over the years. Every graduate student who gets a PhD. in psychology will have taken several statistics and research methodology classes. I myself took two stat courses and three research courses plus a class in the philosophy of psychology. Psychology is a far better critic of its own methods than outsiders.
  3. A new discussion group on Facebook called Libertarianism and Psychology was formed to look at the relevance of such research.

This is part of a series